Mara 18 (©Archivo Caracas, 6toPoder)
Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador have entered a perilously new era in their history. Caught between the rise in criminal violence domestically and the presence of the international drug trade, the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America is fighting for its survival. A bleak economic landscape has fostered youth gangs known as maras and domestic smugglers to build a relationship with the great drug syndicates of Mexico and South America with impunity permitted by a corrupt police and government. How have the cartels exerted such dominance over Central America with most of the US bound cocaine now going through these countries? And what can be done to regain control of an isthmus in free fall?
But in the aftermath of the tumultuous political cycles of strongmen, coups and civil wars, the sub-continent is now witness to the dizzying levels of violence brought on by gangs of nihilistic youths and powerful foreign drug trade organizations.
In the past decade criminality has risen exponentially throughout the region. Yet the crime wave has overwhelmingly been felt much more strongly in the so-called Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Honduras has had nearly 50,000 violent deaths in the last decade alone. Among security circles, these countries are referred to as the Northern Triangle due to their relative positions to one another, shared history, and more recently their combined role in the Latin American drug trade. With some of the world’s highest homicide rates, staggering levels of corruption and, in recent years, tottering political instability, the Northern Triangle is simultaneously victim to the inevitable repercussions of the battles being waged between the great cartels of Mexico, but also of a meltdown of their own making.
The main narrative tropes that have shaped the isthmus can be best typified by the experiences of Honduras and Guatemala. The first is the road to democracy after a civil war such as Guatemala’s, and the other being the gradual shift from a dictatorship to democracy which Honduras underwent (and arguably is still going through) in the early 1980s. It is their recent past that can explain why such a distinct criminal silhouette has been cast over Central America. The tormented region is slowly coming back to the fore of international press but hardly for an enviable reason: the drug war has metastasized into an existential threat for the isthmus.
The Militancy of the Marginalized
The ease with which foreign criminal enterprises have made their presence felt in Central America has been partly due to their keen eye in finding suitable conditions for their businesses. In the case of the Northern Triangle, they have found dispossession to exploit, corruption to exacerbate but more than anything they have found a vast labor pool to hire from. The smuggling clans of Central America (known as transportistas) and the larger transnational elements hire maras to perform smaller scale criminal such as drug running, targeted murders and extortion. Generally speaking, maras are violent criminal organizations that began as turf gangs who originally engaged in local opportunistic delinquencies, and have now internationalized into networked and complex structures with a growing political consciousness.1Sullivan, John and Adam Elkus. “Global Cities, Global Gangs,” Open Society Net, December 2, 2009. Maras are functionally different from the native criminal groups found elsewhere in the Americas and are now the quintessential Central American criminal link in the transnationalized Latin American drug trade network.
The maras phenomenon finds its origin on the streets of the poor and racially segregated neighborhoods of 1960s Los Angeles. The first recognizable mara to take shape was the 18th Street gang comprised of Mexican and Central American immigrants. The original maras were formed by Latino workers who were shunned by the established American gangs that existed in the Rampart area of the city (eponymously on 18th street); namely the Chicano (or Mexican-Americans) and African-American gangs. At first in order to put an end to the harassment dispensed by the dominant gangs, the migrants banded together to defend themselves. But with time they ended up adopting the profile of an inner city American gang eventually growing to a powerful force in their own right. Twenty years later in the same area of LA, scores of Central American refugees, predominantly Salvadoran settled into the same dispossessed communities of the Rampart area. The Salvadoran refugees, some being former members of both the death squads and guerillas, organized themselves into self-defense groups to defend against the established gangs. They entered in a feud with the 18th street gang, the Bloods, the numerous Chicano gangs and finally came together in forming the Mara Salvatrucha (or MS13), slang for Salvadoran mob.2Sullivan, John. “Transnational Gangs: The Impact of Third Generation Gangs in Central America.” Air & Space Power Journal 2nd Trimester (2008). Although the MS13 is a much more recent gang compared to the other Angelino crews, the experience gained from the war that many Salvadorans brought over gave them an advantage in establishing the MS13 as a reckonable force of violence in the criminal landscape of LA. The bitter rivalry that has since left thousands of MS13 and 18th Street gang members dead was first seeded in these early turf wars in LA. Other gangs that are not affiliated with the MS13 or M18 find their roots in the political hooliganism of the Cold War where bands of leftwing and rightwing youths would clash across ideological lines. These groups were much smaller and usually kept to their immediate neighborhoods.
Though at one point the maras were all relegated to the slums of east LA, they were soon exported to other parts of the United States once other illegal Central American immigrants joined the gangs in other diaspora communities throughout the country, most notably those of Chicago, Montgomery county in Maryland and New York City. The gangs’ swelling ranks also coincided with the first waves of deportation initiated by President Clinton after the peace treaties that put an end to the Central American civil wars were inked in the early 1990s.3Ibid. The criminally radicalized immigrants were returned in droves to their countries taking with them the mara culture. In the case of the Northern Triangle states, no others have been as significant as the 18th Street and MS13. The continuous deportation of illegal immigrants essentially seeded gang members from the US to the Northern Triangle, thus bringing with them their vicious rivalries, unique marero ethos and the gangs’ organizational makeup.4Ibid. Once the original deportees returned they would return to their native communities only to find that they had been irreparably destroyed by the wars or depopulated by migration. In the case of the younger deported mareros, they were sent to a country they had never even set foot in. Galvanized by the experiences of the ghetto life in LA, most mareros began to build informal marginal communities on the peripheries of the major cities of Central America. It was at this point in the mid-1990s that barrios marginales began to grow on the outskirts of cities, growing after each subsequent wave of deportation. With little state presence in these barrios many would ultimately come under control of the maras.
The maras’ expansion in the past two decades is palpable. It is estimated that nearly 70,000 mareros exist in Central America alone, with an equal high number living in the United States. Honduras is accountable for over half at 36,000, while Guatemala has 14,000 and El Salvador has 10,400 mareros. The nearest count in any neighboring country is 2,660 in Costa Rica.5Bosworth, James. Honduras: Organized Crime Gaining Amid Political Crisis. Working paper. Washington, DC.: Wilson Center, 2010. Working Paper Ser. on Organized Crime in Central America. This is likely due to the fact that out of all Central American countries, the Northern Triangle has had the most migratory outflows and deportations. It also bears mentioning that not all of these mareros are 18th or MS13, there are a great deal many more gangs, however these two that are the most developed and complex organizations. In fact, Honduras has the dubious distinction of having the most number of different gangs in Central America with over 100 different maras vying for control, while El Salvador and Guatemala are almost neatly split between the feuding 18th and MS13.6Ibid.
Modern maras have become untethered from their Angelino origins. The identity of such maras as the M18 and MS13 in the Northern Triangle are contoured by the experiences of the barrio they are based from. Central American gangs are made up of individuals washed up as detritus in the periphery of a society that simply does not have time for them. These people are often the orphaned, those left behind by immigration, the disenfranchised, the destitute, the wayward, and simply put those that society has cast aside and government has routinely criminalized. Once the initiated become part of their neighborhood clica, they are imbued with a sense of pride, kinship and, most importantly, of belonging that was not there before. This is reinforced by the application of armed violence to empower themselves by way of open defiance towards the state, and more importantly war against rival maras. In a sense, the neighborhood gang offers these outcasts immediate recognition and camaraderie wherever they might find their gang’s turf. That is to say that a MS13 gang member will be treated as a brother in arms whenever he is in MS13 territory. The opposite is also true: the blood feud between gangs stops at no border. The members of the transnationalized maras are thus part of every barrio their gang controls, making each marero part of a far greater subculture stretching beyond their communities and countries. And for the aimless and disenfranchised youths of Central America this has proven to be an important enough reason to seek membership.
Maras have grown exponentially as programs for social rehabilitation have largely degenerated or failed altogether due to lack of political will, funds or simple mistrust in the government’s motives. In their place social exclusion has been more strictly demarcated, poverty has risen and the dispossession of the youth has crippled development in Central America, with the Northern Triangle being disproportionately affected. These failings are also taking place in countries that have an exceedingly young population, where one third of the region’s population is between the ages of 15 to 24. Furthermore, with a deficient education system, governments incapable of creating jobs, in a region where unemployment and poverty are endemic, an ideal climate for gangs to permeate is easily fostered. The only growth sector in most Central American cities is the informal job market, in which seven out of ten new jobs are illicit. The unprecedented growth of informal economies in Northern Triangle states has contributed to the widening of inequality in as the middle class continues to disappear, pushing many into the grips of unmonitored and often dangerous sources of employment. Distrust of government and a historical opprobrium to authority have also left communities without support as social workers are simply not allowed into the more troubled areas of the cities.
The heavy burden migration has on the families of the at risk communities in the Northern Triangle has been the major cause for the development of maras. Family units are being destroyed as paternal and maternal figures leave to richer countries with their children in the custody of an equally struggling family member or friend; many times never coming back.7 Arana, Ana. “How the Street Gangs Took Central America.” Foreign Affairs. May-June 2005. Aug. 2011. <http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/60803/ana-arana/how-the-street-gangs-took-central-america>. Growing up in a barrio where dispossession, disenfranchisement and social exclusion are the norm, an atomized family unit becomes replaced with the camaraderie and identity found in mara culture. The returning criminal deportees also easily relapse into a life of crime when faced with the realities of the streets. In the Northern Triangle there is no such thing as simply quitting a gang. It is a lifelong commitment that leaves many individuals with very few alternatives. The local authorities have not been able to keep up with deportation rate. Often times the authorities incarcerate the deportees without being charged and send them to dangerously overcrowded prisons where conditions are rated among the worst in the world. Compounded by the fact that the dismal prison system, not unlike the US version, is analogous to a veritable higher education in crime than a rehabilitation facility the maras’ recruitment cycle is essentially being perpetuated.8Ibid.
The governments’ response to the escalating criminal violence and the spread of maras in general has been the hardliner approach, known as Mano Dura (or heavy hand). Essentially, Mano Dura legislation is a series of zero tolerance policies that have enhanced the power and authority police have, set harsh jail time for mareros, outlawed maras altogether, and allowed the military to patrol alongside police forces amongst others. The Mano Dura approach is seen as a populist measure, and is criticized as a less than effective method of dealing with the gang problem; moreover, it is now considered a catalyst to further escalation.9Saltsman, Terry W., and Ben J. Welch. “Maras in Central America.” Small Wars Journal(2008). The entire Northern Triangle has enacted some iteration of the Mano Dura approach since 2002 to great initial fanfare. Since then maras have adapted and changed their modus operandi, making them less identifiable. Maras as a whole continued to operate, even grow, unabated. El Salvador and Honduras have unsurprisingly been on the forefront of harsher penalties against gang members, yet this has only resulted in increased police brutality, overcrowded prisons and rising gang membership. Since 2001, over 400 inmates have died in Honduras due to the routine riots and prison takeovers that plague the system.10Bosworth, op. cit This past February the decrepit Central American prison system was brought to the fore once again as one of the deadliest structural fires in recorded history incinerated 360 inmates at the medium security prison in Comayagua, Honduras; most of whom were still awaiting sentencing. The ramshackle overcrowded prison that was designed for 400 convicts had at the time of the inferno nearly 900 full time prisoners. So far Honduras has had five deadly prison fires in the past 15 years where more than 80 people die. Many in the country believe this indicates a far more sinister plot, hinting of social cleansing on behalf of the government when likely the case is the government simply does not have the reformation of the prison system, law enforcement or courts as a priority.
The more developed gangs are those that are transnational, organized into interconnected cells and represent a challenge to the authority of the state. Both the MS13 and 18th Street, who began as small time inner-city gangs in the failed neighborhoods of Los Angeles, are now present throughout the Americas.11Sullivan. op. cit. Through the heightened accessibility of technology, communication between cells (or clicas) is exceedingly simple as affiliated gangs organizing activities from virtually anywhere. Their presence in most major US metropolitan areas has been connected with the directives of leaders in prison, or as was the case in an assault against 18th Street gang members in Talanga, Honduras, an MS13 leader was found guilty of ordering the hit from a prison in North Texas.12Bosworth. op. cit.
Much like in Colombia, where the absence of a state left armed actors such as the paramilitaries and guerilla as de facto authority, the maras have similarly taken control in the barrios of Central America. Made up of the lost children of the failed communities of the Americas from Los Angeles to San Jose, mareros have been described as a criminal insurgency, with violent death rates exceeding even those of conflict zones. The violence these countries suffer is of course not sourced exclusively by the dispossessed youth of the slums. The slow collapse that has taken place over the last five years in Central America’s Northern Triangle points to only one thing: the drug war has come to the isthmus.
Criminals without Borders
Recently the main point of contact after cocaine leaves South American has become Honduras. The country has always had a fecund environment for criminal groups to take root on account of the its ideal geographic location and more importantly its chaotic political system, something that has yet to change. Coinciding with Pablo Escobar’s maneuvering in the early 1980s, Honduran middlemen and smugglers developed working relationships between Andean producers and North American distributors, namely the erstwhile powerful cartels of Tijuana and Juarez. The transportistas, essentially smugglers, first emerged during the 1960s as the civil wars and dictatorships in the adjacent states created a black market for goods from the less restricted Honduras. In fact, the first Honduran transportistas were set up in order to smuggle cheese to El Salvador and Guatemala.13Wilkinson, Tracy. “El Salvador Becomes Drug Traffickers’ ‘little Pathway’” Los Angeles Times. 22 Mar. 2011. Aug. 2011. <http://articles.latimes.com/2011/mar/22/world/la-fg-central-america-drugs-20110322>. Juan Ramon Matta established the now extant relationship between the Colombians and Mexicans during the 1970s via the “Mexican Trampoline” which resulted in the explosion of cocaine in the US during the 1980s.14 DEA, op. cit.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently released a report that attributed 90% of cocaine that reaches the US is now over Central America, either through the maritime routes or over land.15USDOJ. National Drug Threat Assessment. 2010-Q0317-001. Washington, DC: United States Department of Justice, 2010. Generally speaking, the transportistas move the cocaine after its been dropped off in the territory by Colombian and Venezuelan syndicates, who then hand it over to other Central American transportistas hired by the Mexican cartels. Presently, Honduran transportistas are the middlemen between the polar extremes of the drug trade. Two major groups are currently making their presence felt in Honduras: Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel. With different focal points of influence (Sinaloa affiliated networks to the West and those aligned with Los Zetas to the North), the Mexican gangs essentially franchise out the northward acquisition and movement of cocaine, human trafficking (particularly the Zetas) and weapons sectors to the Honduran middlemen, while maintaining a presence in the countries themselves for purposes of oversight. Most of the illicit narcotics arrive in Honduras by either air or sea, and most of this is focused in the barely accessible easternmost region of the country, La Mosquitia. The area is densely forested with very little state presence and an absence of opportunities for the inhabitants transforms the communities into an ideal port for the drug trade. Generally understood to be the main drop off point, La Mosquitia is the main point of contact between the South Americans and the transportistas.16Dudley, Steven S. Drug Trafficking Organizations in Central America: Transportistas, Mexican Cartels and Maras. Working paper. Washington, DC.: Woodrow Wilson Center, 2010.
Go-fast boats (named so because of their capability to outrun all law enforcement vessels), and narco-subs (homemade submersibles that sail by night, and are submerged by day), take to the seas inching off the coasts of Central America from Colombia and Venezuela. Both the boats and the submersibles are homemade at around $1 million apiece and are used for a single voyage only to be scuttled later. Landing on the Pacific or Caribbean coast, the people in the local communities will bring in the illicit cargo onto the mainland and take it to the subsequent point of contact.17Farah, Douglas. Organized Crime in El Salvador: The Homegrown and Transnational Dimensions. Working paper. Washington, DC.: Wilson Center, 2011. Single prop airplanes also make a similar journey from South America towards the Northern Triangle. After the cargo is on land either getting there by sea, or by air from the interior of the country, the transportistas move the cargo to either one of two northern provinces in which the Zetas or the Sinaloa hired groups operate: Atlántida or Colon.18Bosworth, op. cit.
In Atlántida and Colon the transportistas use the long littoral Caribbean departments as a staging ground to move their cargo into Guatemala and El Salvador through the increasingly lawless border departments of Copan and Ocotepeque. Not surprisingly, the turf wars that have erupted amongst the factions of newer criminal clans, older transportistas and maras have resulted in creating two of the most violent regions on the planet. Atlántida alone has a murder rate of 131.8 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, 17 times greater than the global rate of 7.6! Colon is more sparsely populated due to the intractable terrain surrounding the Plátano River yet it still tallies up 88 homicides per 100,000.19”Tasa De Homicidios En Honduras Está En Niveles De “epidemia”.” Diario La Tribuna. 23 July 2011. Aug. 2011.
The Mexican cartels have had little difficulty in cementing their presence by linking their networks with the native criminal elements of the maras and transportistas. The maras are contracted both by the dominant transportistas and the larger transnational elements to do more small-time activities. This includes extortion, protection, kidnapping, assassinations and intimidation. In less than a year apart, San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa’s police chiefs were murdered with impunity by hit men (also known as sicarios) allegedly hired by the Sinaloa cartel to make inroads into the capital and the affluent industrial hub of the north. San Pedro Sula is now facing a turf war between the Sinaloa associated criminal groups and the Zetas hired guns. The city is the narcotics clearing house of Honduras earning the dubious honor of having highest homicide rate in the world with 82 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants (or three murders per day), compared to the national index of 78 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants (comparatively, conflict zones such as Colombia, Somalia and Sudan are all well below 30 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants). San Pedro made headlines earlier this year when it successfully usurped Ciudad Juarez’s title as the world’s most violent city.
As for the transshipment into Guatemala and El Salvador, these actions are carried out from areas in Copan and Ocotepeque which have been effectively seized from the state and are now mostly narco-run. El Paraiso, Copan is the last step of Honduras’ role in the drug stream, where the likes of Chapo Guzman, currently the world’s most wanted fugitive leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, is reported have sought refuge in. El Paraiso has become the go to destination for the more established Honduran transportistas to reside in relative comfort.20Martinez, Oscar. “La Frontera De Los Señores.” El Faro. Aug. 2011. <http://www.salanegra.elfaro.net/es/201108/cronicas/5018/?st-full_text=0>. Copan has contributed in earning yet another dubious title for the country as being part of the planet with some of the highest incidences of murdered lawyers, political figures, and journalists.21O’Reilly, Andrew. “Who’s Killing the Journalists of Honduras?” Truthout. 20 May 2011. Aug. 2011. <http://www.truth-out.org/whos-killing-journalists-honduras/1305899033>.
Elsewhere in Central America, Guatemala’s recent history has been marked by its civil war, one that also affected the way in which organized crime developed in the country. Just as in Honduras transportistas naturally emerged to trade with the military and guerillas of the country and its neighbors. Notoriously, domestic Guatemalan smugglers gained prominence as suppliers to the military. The Guatemalan security apparatus’ all-encompassing presence during the 30 year war created a demand for goods, particularly during the harsher periods of dictatorship. The smugglers would at first supply the pervasive armed forces with contraband, while conducting their own smalltime crimes. During the 1980s as the Caribbean cocaine corridor was shut down by the US Coast Guard and the DEA, the Colombian groups began to make inroads into Guatemala.
Since then, the encroaching Mexican presence, mostly from the Zetas in Petén and Alta Verapaz has resulted in skyrocketing homicide rates that at times exceed the violence wrought during the civil war. Yet unlike the civil war which lead to a significant degree of accountability being demanded for the atrocities committed by both sides, the current criminal insurrection has only sown the seeds of impunity. The UN appointed international commission against impunity (CICIG) has said that since 2006, 98% of crimes remain unsolved, cold or without the resources to investigate.22Valladares, Danilo. “Acción Multilateral Contra La Impunidad En América Central.” Upside Down World. 13 May 2010. Aug. 2011. <http://upsidedownworld.org/main/en-espatopmenu-81/2493-accion-multilateral-contra-la-impunidad-en-america-central->.
The Mendozas and Lorenzanas, the ruling smuggling clans of Guatemala, have in turn affiliated themselves with one of two of the stronger cartels that rule the turf of Southern Mexico: the Sinaloa or the Zetas. The Mendozas who dominate the South East move the cocaine from the Salvadoran border into Zacapa to the Sinaloa smugglers in South East Chiapas. The Lorenzanas generally move the cargo from the Honduran transportistas through the Copan border up into Petén which is then later taken over the porous border by the Zetas into Chiapas. The men and women who make up the raw labor of the domestic criminal networks are typically maras who are hired by the clans. However, the most outstanding and uniquely Guatemalan (and to a degree Salvadoran as well) is the participation, collaboration and collusion from members of the civil war era military in developing the criminal networks of the country.
As the internal violence came to an end, the next and second source of Guatemalan organized crime emerged. In the immediate disarray of post-war Guatemala, the security forces were downsized and scaled down as a result of the peace agreement, leaving a great deal of men who had participated in paramilitary actions, secret police activities or had simply spent years in the highlands without an alternate path of life. While the rural guerillas were afforded a more conscious demobilization and integration program through the government, security forces were simply left out on the street.23Lopez, Guatemala. Ibid. A parallel can be drawn between the demobilized paramilitaries in Colombia who now make up the ranks of the emerging criminal groups, and the soldiers in Guatemala who are now hitmen for the larger drug trafficking syndicates.
Many of the demobilized soldiers had come into contact with the heads of organized crime that used to relay information on guerilla movements during the war. Once free of military service, many low and high ranking men joined the next generation of Guatemalan organized crime syndicates. The most notorious example of this track has been the defection of many former Kaibiles to the Zetas in Mexico and the Mendozas of Southeastern Guatemala. The Kaibiles are the elite forces division of Guatemala who specialize in counter-insurgency, and special operations formed at the height of the civil war to eliminate guerilla leaders. However, since the peace accords, there has been evidence that demobilized or retired Kaibiles are in high demand amongst criminal groups for both training and recruitment.24Killebrew, Robert. “Criminal Insurgency in the Americas and Beyond.” Prism 2.3 (2010).Welcome to the NDU Home Page. NDU.edu, 2010. Aug. 2011. <http://www.ndu.edu/press/criminal-insurgency.html>. One of the more violent of the emerging cartels in Mexico as a result of the drug war has been the Mexico City gang known as “The Hand with Eyes,” whose leader and founder Oscar Garcia has admitted of taking part in over 600 murders in the Mexico City alone and being himself a former Kaibil.
Cause and Effect in the Northern Triangle
The Northern Triangle is sliding past the point of no return. With the highest homicide rates in the world, amongst the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, dangerous levels of political instability and corruption, compounded by paralyzing levels of poverty, insecurity and unemployment, the situation for many of the transit countries stands to deteriorate further in the coming years. The legacy of the Cold War, America’s interminable drug war and the ravages left by decades of migration caused by a failed political vision have left deep wounds on these beleaguered countries. Without the capacity to fight back against the now metastasized threats, transnational criminal elements that have been preying upon the transit states will continue to exploit the weaknesses of these desperate communities. The combat fatigue of the Northern Triangle will likely continue to worsen.
The variety of illicit actors in Central America’s drug war makes finding a solution anything but a simple one. Be it either a compromised security apparatus nearly gone rogue, the apocalyptic youth of the barrios with nothing to lose, or the powerful transportistas of the countryside and their ability to ply local politicians into their fold, the Central America criminal ground is bustling. The reason Colombia is slowly taking back the towns lost to the guerillas and cartels is because they have the resources the political will to rid themselves of the slightest perception of corruption and a court system to prosecute them in. Colombia has taken a counterinsurgency approach to their law enforcement: take back territory lost to criminal groups, secure it by establishing a preventive police presence and holding by setting up social programs in the afflicted communities. The Northern Triangle and the greater Caribbean basin are in greater peril as meager resources with which to combat the crime, often squandered by corruption, are simply not enough to prevent these debilitated countries from becoming a chain of narco-states.
Elsewhere in the region, several parishes in Kingston, Jamaica went to war over the arrest of local drug lord Christopher Coke which resulted in 500 people being arrested, and over 100 dead. In the wake of the brief but vicious turf war, the credibility of Prime Minister Bruce Golding has been cast into question as evidence of collusion between the ruling party and the Jamaican narcotraffickers has been exposed.25Caroll, Rory. “Jamaica Appeals for Calm after Surrender of Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke.” The Guardian. July 2010. Aug. 2011. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jun/23/christopher-dudus-coke-kingston> Other countries in the Caribbean such as Trinidad and Tobago, Antigua and Dominican Republic are being labeled in the same light: Narco-states. The weak states caught in between the upstream narcotics business (that is to say producing countries in the Andes, as well as harbors for traffickers such as Venezuela) and the downstream suppliers (such as Mexico), are under threat of becoming overrun by criminal organizations. The power and money the trafficking syndicates wield is at times greater than the budget, aid and succor countries like Guatemala, Guinea Bissau and Dominican Republic receive. For instance, since 2008 Guatemalan security elements have seized 11.5 billion dollars from a variety of criminal organizations operating in the country; Guatemala’s total budget for 2011 is 6.3 billion dollars!26Newman, Lucia. “Guatemala: A Narco State?” Al Jazeera. 18 Aug. 2011. Aug. 2011. <http://blogs.aljazeera.net/americas/2011/08/14/guatemala-narco-state>.
The level of corruption and criminal penetration into government particularly the policing and judicial structures of Central America has left many places, like El Paraiso in Honduras, to turn a blind eye to narco-activity at the cost of access to the wealth that comes from the drug trade. Other places in which the government has been effectively replaced by transnational criminal organizations, such as in Coban in Guatemala, or many barrios throughout the Northern Triangle where the local criminal groups, be they smuggling clans or maras hold de facto control of marginal areas with impunity under blind eye of the police and military either by fear of reprisals, or bribery. In Honduras the collusion between the police and criminal elements has given rise to a new phenomenon, that of a Police Cartel: police that moonlight as criminals to complement their meager wages. These examples of corruption and impunity continue to foment a strong distrust of governments in the region that will only make a resolution that much more remote.
A weak judiciary, a discredited police force and a decrepit penal system have only continued to hoist the banner of impunity with which all the criminal groups act under. From the maras in the barrios, to the transportistas in their clandestine airfields and the dirty cops that cover their tracks, their ability to act without any worry of punishment for their crimes has allowed violence to skyrocket. While poverty, education and work assistance programs are often at the fore of developmental packages from many donor countries, the dire need to focus on law enforcement has yet to receive the attention it deserves. The historically reactionary justice thus far executed in the Northern Triangle has yielded nary any positive dividends, and while there have been some signs of progress in El Salvador and Guatemala, Honduras has yet to even gesture towards changing the rigid status quo.
The reformation of archaic security and judicial practices has left violent crime to grow unabated throughout the isthmus. Be it due to budgetary limitations, corruption or even collusion, the incapacity to rein in the domestic criminal violence aside from the entrenchment of transnational elements has derailed the development in the Northern Triangle. Before the litany of social issues that need to be redressed even begins to be considered, the governments of the Northern Triangle must regain control of the unraveled societies left in the wake of the dizzying homicide rates. While social factors such as poverty, family disintegration and lack of opportunities create the fertile environment for smugglers to thrive, youth gangs to coalesce and international actors to exploit, they do not in and of themselves force the violence to spiral out of control. An atmosphere in which murder, robbery, rape and other such crimes are seldom investigated, prosecuted or punished renders progress in any social front almost null.
To accomplish the aforementioned the governments of the Northern Triangle would have to practice a bit of self-cauterizing; that is to reform themselves by manner of investigating any leads of corruption and cleaning house as it were of all compromised officials without quarter. Honduras and Guatemala have begun to do so with the police force, but so far the process has been mired in delays intimidation and obstructionism. It is of course absolutely vital to continue the mandate until completion, but the risks remain considerable. A recent casualty was Alfredo Landaverde, a Honduran government adviser who pointed fingers and named names of corrupt police officers and ended up shot dead soon after he made his accusations on national television. Surely the stark reality of what one’s life costs in Central America is not lost in those who seek change. It is this author’s belief that the distrust and apathy towards the government has led many at risk communities to develop relationships with the criminal groups of Central America. When the imperative concerns of impunity and criminal violence are addressed by means of purging the corrupt state employees and rebuilding the rule of law, the intractable social issues should be considerably easier to manage and target. The success of the Colombian experience at the brink of its own collapse at the peak of their drug war has demonstrated this to be a path worth pursuing. Until the political will, ample resources and courage are amassed to push back against the drug fueled criminal violence of the besieged Northern Triangle, their fate will remain in the hands of the violent few to the detriment of the victimized many.